Hortus Eystettensis (The Garden at Eichstätt)

While converting his episcopal residence from a 14th century castle into a prestigious renaissance palace, Johann Conrad von Gemmingen (ca. 1561–1612), Prince-Bishop of Eichstätt, founded the garden at Eichstätt. The garden was actually eight separate gardens on various levels surrounding the castle located on a hill surrounded by the Altmühl River. The castle overlooked the town of Eichstätt and was separated from it by the river. At the time one of the most famous gardens in Europe, it had no equal in Europe for cultivating rare and costly plants.

Conrad commissioned Basilius Besler (1561–1629), a Nuremberg apothecary and an accomplished draftsman, to “help establish the garden and propagate the flowers”. When Besler suggested the plants should be preserved on paper, Conrad commissioned him to produce copper plates for the publication of a florilegium

The Besler Florilegium was printed on the largest paper available at the time, each page measuring 22” by 18”, making it in the 17th century the largest book ever devoted to the depiction of plants. Keeping in mind that there was no system of plant classification when The Besler Florilegium was published, the contents were arranged according to seasons, with plants placed into the appropriate season depending their blooming period. Using the current system of plant classification, The Besler Florilegium depicts plants in 90 plant families in 340 genera, presenting almost 1,100 plants in 367 copperplate engravings.

Besler decided which plants to illustrate and how they were to be illustrated. He chose to draw the rare and more beautiful plants over indigenous species, using “wild” plants to decorate the compositions. Plants were drawn when in full bloom with particular attention to the detail of their anatomy. Often individual species would be depicted in different stages of development and in different forms and with the natural variations in flower color. Aesthetic considerations took precedence over botanical ones. His single rule in creating a composition was that flowers and leaves had to turn outward toward the viewer so that no small detail could escape notice, even if this required a plant to be drawn with a contrived unnatural torsion. Besler considered each composition a work of art.

Engravers were employed to carry out the delicate art of engraving on copper. The results were copper plates of high quality with various line techniques used to give the volume and dimension needed to create the accurate and naturalistic appearance of the plants. In some of the books, the black-and-white pictures made from the copperplate engravings would be hand-colored. In his preliminary drawings Besler took into account the subsequent hand-coloring, often including rudimentary indications of color and matching the color of the smaller plants with that of the larger plants. The coloring was done in a transparent watercolor wash that allowed the line techniques to show through and to maintain the volume and dimension in the drawings.

This dramatic presentation of plants sets Besler’s florilegium apart from other illustrated botanical works of the time. His intention was to produce a magnificent florilegium depicting plants life-size in all their beauty. In doing so, future generations have been able to enjoy the 17th century Garden at Eichstätt.